Monday, June 23, 2003

Bihar minister accused of land grabbing

Amod Kumar

Monday, June 23, 2003 (Sitamarhi, Bihar):

Three cases under the Dalit Atrocities Act have been filed against Bihar's Information Minister Sitaram Yadav, charged with forcibly occupying Dalit land and building his own house.

He is also accused of looting standing crops of Dalits.

The cases were registered following orders from a local Sitamarhi court.

Surplus land was given to Dalits way back in 1972 in Nanpur Nayatol in Bihar's Sitamarhi district, but within a year, local goons grabbed the land.

Sitaram Yadav's house has been allegedly built on land grabbed from a Dalit, Ramnandan and his wife Sibrati, who still live in a makeshift hut.

A year ago, after several protests, Dalits did get back some of their land and began cultivation. But this March, their crops were looted just before it was harvested.

Ram Lalit Paswan, a Dalit victim, alleged, "The minister ordered that our crops be looted."

Mahendra Paswan, another Dalit victim, added, "We went on a hunger strike on March 31. He (Yadav) called a meeting but then ordered the looting of our wheat. My wheat was only half-ready, yet it was looted."

Dalits this time went to court, which ordered an inquiry, following which three cases have been registered against Sitaram Yadav.

The minister himself maintains that he is innocent. "Several cases have been filed against me in the past to defame me. They are filing false cases against me," he insisted.

But the court's direction to file FIRs against the minister has had some results at least. A circle inspector has been sent to ensure the Dalits get back their land.

Srikant Singh, Circle Officer, Nanpur Block, said, "We have come here to get the land repossessed by Dalits - to verify, measure and hand them back to Dalits."

Police will soon question the minister.

Source: NDTV, June 23, 2003

Saturday, June 21, 2003

A shrine and a struggle


Years of suppression of Dalits by the Jat community culminates in Punjab's worst caste-related strife, involving Jat and Dalit Sikh residents of Talhan village near Jalandhar.

ROADSIDE dhabas in Punjab do not have separate tea-cups for Dalits, and Dalits are not massacred when they ask for higher wages: and that, it is now becoming clear, is about as far equality goes in India's most prosperous State.

On June 5, Dalits and the dominant, landholding Jat community blew apart the facade of caste peace in Punjab, initiating clashes that have so far left one person dead and dozens injured. The clashes began at an annual fair held at the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Samadhi, built in memory of a local Sufi saint in Talhan village near Jalandhar (Frontline, May 9, 2003). The two communities blamed each another for starting the violence, which took place as police officials watched. Most of the injured were Dalits, and most of the 10 homes damaged in the rioting also belonged to Dalits. Within hours, Dalits in Jalandhar city, incensed by the images of the violence telecast on cable television channels, came out on the streets. A 27-year-old Dalit, Vijay Kumar Kala, was killed in police firing, which began after Dalits torched buses and blocked traffic on the Jalandhar-Amritsar railway line.

Violent clashes between the police and Dalits continued in Jalandhar for several days. Although curfew was imposed in Talhan, fresh clashes broke out there on June 8. This time, Dalit assertion was evident. A group of Dalits marched into a Jat-owned field to harvest fodder, asserting a traditional right denied to them ever since the landlords initiated an economic blockade two months ago. Fodder stacked in the field of Kewal Singh, a local Jat leader who was instrumental in initiating the anti-Dalit blockade, was set on fire. The violence in Jalandhar mirrored this local conflagration, with young Dalits refusing to respect curfew orders imposed by what they say is a Jat-dominated police force and administration. The violence has, without dispute, been the worst caste-related strife Punjab has ever seen.

IT all began a decade ago, when massive donations by overseas Punjabis began to flow into the coffers of the until-then obscure Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh shrine. The Dalits soon began to assert that they had a right to share in the management of the shrine, since it was built on village common land. The matter went to court and last January Dalits obtained an order enabling them to participate in elections to the shrine's managing committee. Jats flatly refused to respect the order, and the matter went back to court. On January 14 this year, Dalits, armed with a fresh court order, arrived again to contest the elections. This time Jats walked out.

Talhan's Dalits now chose to assert their rights. Since Jats had walked out of the elections, all 13 members of the committee chosen that day were Dalits. The tactic was intended to force a bargain and a meeting was called five days later to arrive at a compromise. Instead, tempers flared, and a fight broke out. The police posted at the shrine responded by attacking Dalits with batons. Dalits say Station House Officer Gurbachan Singh - himself a Jat - ensured that they were thrown out of the Shaheed Baba shrine. Jats placed new banners declaring the Samadhi Sthal a shrine, thus asserting that Talhan's Dalits - who, although Sikhs, practise traditions rejected by the orthodox Khalsa sect of Jats - had no right to the building. The same day Jats announced an economic blockade of Dalits, by refusing to buy their milk, sell them fodder, and even denying them access to open fields to defecate.

For two months, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's government refused to step in. The administration and the police refused to implement court orders, or even to respond to the directives of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which ordered the prosecution of Jat leaders under the Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989. The government's inaction was wilful, since evidence of the ugly oppression of Dalits in Talhan was only too easily available. On the basis of a report by the Additional Director of the Punjab Social Welfare Department, Social Security Minister Santokh Singh had announced that "documentary evidence established the boycott". Then, investigators from the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes recommended that Jat leaders "Kewal Singh and Bhupinder Singh be externed from the village for six months".

Dalits attempted to mount pressure with demonstrations and even a hunger strike, but to little effect. Finally, on May 27, the Talhan Dalit Action Committee passed a resolution threatening more up-front means. "Till now our struggle has been peaceful, but if the Punjab government does not understand our peaceful overtures, we will resort to direct action, for which preparations are being made," the resolution warned. The Dalit Action Committee announced that it would continue its hunger strike in Jalandhar until the end of May, but if the district administration still failed to check its "partisan and communal" attitude, direct action would be taken, for which preparations were being done. It is worth noting that the Dalit threat came in the face of sustained provocation and after the failure of legal avenues.

AS things stand, the Talhan struggle could mark a decisive turning point in Punjab politics. For one, it has clear implications for Sikh communal politics. For the past several years, the Jat-dominated Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) have sought to exclude Sehajdhari Sikhs - those who do not observe its outward appearances, such as unshorn hair - from the umbrella of the faith. Most Sehajdhari Sikhs are Dalit, and have been fighting efforts to strip them of the right to vote in SGPC elections. Talhan's Jats have found support both in the mainstream SGPC, which has blamed the violence there on the Bharatiya Janata Party, and far-Right organisations such as the Damdami Taksal. Talhan, in a very direct way, poses a challenge to Jat hegemony over Sikh religious practices, with sects like the Ad-Dharmis asserting their right to control community institutions.

Equally, the incident poses a serious challenge to secular forces in Punjab. The leadership of the Dalits of Jalandhar has been appropriated by local BJP leader Vijay Sampla, himself a Dalit. This came about more or less by default, given the Congress government's dithering on the issue. Sadly, Punjab's once-vibrant Left was invisible in the course of the struggle. As things stand, the confrontation between Dalits, both Sikh and Hindu, on the one hand, and Jats on the other, could take an ugly communal turn. The Talhan clash comes at a time of renewed mobilisation by the Sikh religious Right. On May 6, the Akal Takht, the highest seat of Sikh spiritual authority, declared revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale a martyr of the faith. Although similar pronouncements have been made from time to time, the adoption of his martyrdom as a formal event in the Sikh religious calendar is designed to widen the fissures between Hindus and Sikhs. Earlier, the Sikh religious establishment formally adopted the Nanakshahi calendar, which will now sunder major Hindu and Sikh festival dates.

"Don't react," recommended an editorial in The Indian Express on Bhindranwale's elevation to Akal Takht-endorsed martyrdom. It is an approach Chief Minister Amarinder Singh seems to endorse. At one press conference, he blamed the Talhan violence on "trouble-makers from outside", a thinly veiled attack on the many Dalit workers who travel to Punjab each year, bringing with them ideas of Dalit political rights forged in struggles in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Chief Minister has, sadly, nowhere committed himself to respect the Talhan Dalits' legally obtained rights. A five-member Congress Group of Ministers set up to investigate the Talhan rioting had, at the time of writing, failed even to visit the families of Kala and other Dalit victims. Silence on the inextricably linked caste and communal-fundamentalist forces in Punjab has proved calamitous in the past. Reaction to recent events by all secular forces is precisely what is needed.

Two decades ago, the Congress(I) failed to provide leadership for this reaction, choosing opportunistic alliances with the religious Right instead. The consequences are still there for all to see - and now the party seems to be at it again.

Source: Frontline, June 21, 2003

Monday, June 16, 2003

15 yrs on, Jehanabad awaits next massacre

Life hasn't changed for survivors of killing that set off Bihar caste war


NONAHI-NAGWAN (JEHANABAD), JUNE 15: Exactly 15 years ago, this village shot to national infamy when 20 Dalits were massacred for daring to demand wages. For the survivors and the victims' kin, little has changed in the intervening period; they live in fear of another massacre, the land they received as compensation has been seized, the promised jobs haven't come for all and, where they have, the salaries haven't.

The thick cover of fear over the village is despite the judgement on June 6 of a special court ordering the death sentence for eight of the accused and life terms for six others.

The landlords and political masters - Bhumihars and Yadavs - have instilled such fear in the Dalits here that no one dares to speak in the open. ''Please don't name me in reports. We fear another massacre any time'', Ram Prasad (name changed) whispers even as 'spies' look on.

The political landscape of the village has changed substantially since 1988, as in other parts of Bihar, but the Dalits aren't sure it has been for the better. ''Though we still live in fear of our lives, no landlord can prevent our children from being sent to school,'' says Ram Prasad, accentuating the positive. But what landlords legally can't do, poverty can; only four or five children from the 30-plus Dalit families get to attend the school just a stone's throw away.

Even on paper, much needs to be one. The government had offered land and a job to each of the 15 dependents of the 20 victims. Till date, nine have got jobs - four of them only six months ago. Land was given to all, says Jahanabad Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), M S Jamal, but Dalits complain that it has all been taken over by those in power.

''This is where I was given land'', Mangali Majhi says, pointing to a large pond under construction. The money for the pond came from a Union Rural Development Ministry scheme administered by local non-governmental groups, in this case controlled by the upper-castes.

Jamal acknowledges that the pond should have been in a government plot adjacent to those given to Dalits. "We were not aware of these things. But we will look into it and ensure that the Dalits get back their land, if dispossessed," says Jahanabad DM Santhosh Kumar Lall. The immediate cause for the June 16 massacre was the refusal of Laldas Paswan, a Dalit labourer, to work without being paid. The landlords had already been angered by workers' demands for a wage increase - from the daily one kg of grain to one and half - which they saw as a direct challenge to their authority. Paswan's audacity was beyond their tolerance.

''The landlords hired goons from nearby villages, who came in the night," recalls Dewnandan Das whose father, two sons and two sisters were killed. Laldas Paswan and his seven-year-old son were killed.

Das and Paswan's widow Malti Devi were among the key prosecution witnesses in the case. ''They come and threaten me still, but I don't care now'', says Das (70).

Those present at the upper-caste gathering at the school ground refused to talk to this correspondent, saying Rameshwar Yadav was the only man who would comment. Yadav, the village's elected mukhiya, was away organising the appeal petitions for the accused and was unavailable.

The wheels of power inevitably roll to try and save the accused from the gallows. In their dingy quarters, meanwhile, Dalits huddle together praying that the events of 15 years ago aren't repeated.

Source: The Indian Express, June 16, 2003

Thursday, June 05, 2003

Curfew in Jalandhar, 3 Dalits injured

Thursday, June 5, 2003 (Jalandhar):

Three Dalits have been seriously injured following clashes in the Talhan village in the Jalandhar district of Punjab.

There has been tension for the last six months between the dominant Jat community and Dalits over a local gurdwara.

The Jat community had boycotted the Dalits after they wanted to pray at the gurdwara.

Despite an appeal from the ruling Congress party, the deadlock continued and the Dalits went on a dharna in the village demanding that they be allowed to enter the gurudwara. The police were forced to lathi charge the Dalit protestors today.

Source: NDTV, June 5, 2003